International human rights experts are to meet grassroots campaigners and activists next month to discuss how disabled people have been treated by police during peaceful protests.
A team from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) will discuss the treatment of disabled protesters by the Metropolitan police at last month’s Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests in London.
But the team will also hear of concerns about forces, including Lancashire and Greater Manchester police, that have admitted sharing information about disabled protesters with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
They will also monitor how police treat disabled protesters during demonstrations planned to take place during next month’s NATO summit in London.
ODIHR asked to meet members of the Metropolitan police’s disability independent advisory group (DIAG) after hearing about what it described as allegations of “degrading and humiliating treatment” of disabled XR protesters last month.
But DIAG also plans to raise concerns – revealed by Disability News Service (DNS) over the last year – about how some forces are sharing details of disabled protesters with DWP.
ODIHR has told DNS that it will examine these concerns, which have seen police forces taking video and photographs of disabled protesters and passing that and other information to DWP.
After a request from ODIHR, DIAG has contacted disabled protesters arrested during the XR protest and members of the XR Disabled Rebels Network, to ask if they would also like to meet the ODIHR team.
The meetings will be part of ODIHR’s work on the right to peaceful protest, which will see an examination of the UK’s record, including plans to monitor protests during the NATO summit on 3 and 4 December.
ODIHR is based in Warsaw and is one of the institutions of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which provides a forum for political dialogue in areas such as arms control, terrorism and media freedom, and has 57 member states in Europe, Asia and North America.
One of OCSE’s recommendations for all its member states is to ensure that protesters can confirm what data has been stored about their participation in a protest and have an effective way to complain about the collection, retention and use of this data to the relevant authorities.
This has become a key issue for many disabled protesters in the last 12 months.
Anne Novis, DIAG’s chair, said: “We are pleased to have an opportunity to explain our concerns about police actions against disabled people in recent protests.
“We know Deaf and disabled people, including us, are still very worried about attending protests, not just in London, and hope this work goes some way to improving police decisions in future, including the issues of some forces sharing disabled protesters’ details with the DWP.
“We have been assured the MPS* does not do this, but we keep alert to this issue.”
The ODIHR visit and its decision to meet with disabled campaigners was also welcomed by the XR Disabled Rebels Network, which took part in last month’s climate change protests in London (pictured).
Bob Williams-Findlay, a member of the network, said: “I believe it’s a positive sign that the ODIHR have not only taken the issues seriously, but that they are also keen to meet and hear disabled people’s first-hand accounts.”
Only last month, DNS revealed that police forces across the country had admitted having no policies or guidance that would tell officers when they should pass information about disabled protesters to DWP.
The admissions fuelled fears of a growing hostile environment facing disabled people, which were further heightened by the treatment of disabled activists by the Metropolitan police during the XR protests.
Police forces appear to have been relying on the Data Protection Act for legal authority to pass information to DWP, without any advice or guidance to their officers on when this can or should take place.
The invitation to meet the ODIHR team came after DNS revealed that DIAG had lodged a formal complaint about the Metropolitan police’s “discriminatory” treatment of disabled protesters during the XR protests.
DIAG warned that the force had breached the Equality Act by discriminating against disabled protesters, and that its actions risked causing “irreparable damage” to relations between disabled people and the force.
Among the concerns about the force’s actions were its decision to confiscate equipment that was intended to make it safe and accessible for disabled people to take part in the XR protests, and the decision to arrest a wheelchair-user because she needed support from a personal assistant – who was also arrested – during a solo, peaceful protest outside New Scotland Yard.
The force later apologised to DIAG for failing to consult them before and during the protests about how to treat disabled protesters.
An ODIHR spokesperson told DNS: “We will be in the UK at the beginning of December to monitor the work of the police during the planned NATO summit protests.
“ODIHR will certainly take note of police activities regarding protesters with disabilities during the demonstrations.
“We are aware that the Metropolitan Police has an independent advisory board (the Disability Independent Advisory Group), and consider this to be a positive practice.
“However, we understand there has been criticism of police handling of protesters with disabilities in recent months, and we are therefore glad that we will be meeting representatives of the advisory board to hear their views.
“All the information we gather from this and visits to other OSCE countries in which we are due to carry out freedom of peaceful assembly monitoring next year will feed into our final analysis, which will be published in 2020.”
ODIHR’s last examination, published in September, looked at practices in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy, Lithuania and Norway.
Among the concerns raised during that examination was the practice, during many protests, of police forces videoing and photographing the entire protest, without informing those taking part about the purpose of those recordings and how the data captured would be retained and processed.
The report said this practice had “implications for other human rights, such as the right to privacy, and can have a significant chilling effect on assembly participants”.
The Home Office refused to comment this week on the ODIHR visit to the UK.
Meanwhile, Representatives from DIAG, the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance and the XR Disabled Rebels Network have begun initial discussions about holding a public event early next year to highlight disabled people’s fears that their right to public protest is under threat.
A spokesperson for the XR Disabled Rebels Network said: “The Met’s behaviour last month in relation to the XR Disabled Rebels and the uncertainty over information exchanges between the police and DWP, undermine disabled people’s rights.
“The right to protest, it is hoped, can also be interlinked with other issues such as lack of inclusive planning, ignorance within the legal system about disability rights and the impact of the reduction of police awareness and action on disability hate crime.
“Through a roundtable discussion, it is hoped that these issues can come to the fore.”
*Metropolitan Police Service
Picture by Mikee Wilson
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